Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 13, 2008

Reflections on Peter Camejo (1939-2008)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

(These are some personal/political reflections about Peter Camejo. Tomorrow I will be writing an obit for Swans.)

Even though I had steeled myself in anticipation of Peter Camejo’s death, I was still shaken by the news that he was gone. For a period of time between 1981 and 1987, I considered Peter to be a very good friend. More importantly, he was the one person who helped me understand a revolution could be made in the U.S. notwithstanding American Trotskyism’s tendency to create all sorts of obstacles in the way to that understanding. Despite his long-time membership in a group that he would eventually regard as an obstacle to the creation of genuine revolutionary movement, Peter always had an ability to transcend sectarian frameworks.

In early 1970, I was in the New York branch of the SWP and kicking around the idea of going back to graduate school and putting this organization behind me. After 3 years I felt alienated from the membership and many of the arbitrary norms and was ready to pack it in. When I broached the subject with the SWP organizer in New York, he told me that the party was about to ask me to move up to Boston and work with Peter to overcome dogmatic objections in the branch to working in a “petty bourgeois” antiwar movement. I felt flattered that the higher ups would see any value in my skills and agreed to move there in a few weeks.

As some of you know, I have been working on a comic book memoir for the past few months and Peter looms large throughout the story. Here’s what I wrote about one branch meeting:

In early 1970 a memorable fight broke out at a branch meeting over what position to take on the “Shea Bill”. The 31 year old James Shea, a state legislator, had proposed that Massachusetts authorize residents to refuse combat duty in wars that were undeclared by Congress, including Vietnam. It would also authorize the state Attorney General Robert Quinn to use the powers of his office to defend soldiers who challenged the military and indeed Quinn filed suit against the war on February 12, 1970 on behalf of 12 local soldiers who refused orders to go to Vietnam.

Someone took the floor and spoke against the Shea Bill:

“Comrades, it puts undue faith in the bourgeois state to back such a law. It fosters pacifist illusions about the war ending through legislation. We know that it will take the power of the working class to end the war, not the Shea bill. We all know that Shea is only interested in getting people off the streets and supporting the Democratic Party.”

Peter got up next to reply. I remember his comments vividly now after 36 years, just like it was yesterday.

Comrades, Lenin used to stay up late at night reading the Czarist law codes to look for a loophole that would allow workers to go out on strike legally. We must take advantage of any opening that would make it more difficult for the war to continue. If the ruling class is divided over the war, we want to deepen that divide. The Shea Bill should not be seen as opposed to antiwar demonstrations, but complementary to them.

Peter’s motion to support the Shea Bill carried that evening, but in the end it was academic since the courts ruled it unconstitutional. In any case, the notion that James Shea was some kind of Machiavellian schemer trying to defuse the antiwar movement was belied by subsequent events. On May 8, 1970, in deep despair over the war, he went upstairs to his bedroom. His wife, who was worried about his depressed state, opened the door to see him raise a gun and fire a bullet into his head. He died immediately.

For the two years Peter was branch organizer, I felt that there was no better way to live one’s life than as a revolutionary socialist, which meant as a member of the SWP.

I have to confess that I developed a kind of hero worship for Peter and he probably knew it. He was five years older than me and seemed to enjoy my company. When we were up in Boston, we used to play squash together at the Cambridge Y. And when conventions or conferences were held in Oberlin, Peter and I always found time to spend on the courts. Besides his acute political intelligence, Peter was one of the funniest people I ever knew in my life. Although I don’t put myself in his league politically, I did feel that my own sense of humor helped sustain our friendship.

In late 1978, I decided to quit the SWP. I felt that the party was still going to lead the working class to socialism, but I was too burned out by the “turn” to stick around. I was going to go back to N.Y. and write the Great American Novel. (That’s my sense of humor kicking in again.)

For a couple of years I read the Militant with a mounting sense that the SWP was not really involved with actions against the U.S. war in Central America even though the paper was filled with articles about the growing conflict. After a N.Y. Times article written by Leslie Gelb predicting a new Vietnam in the region appeared in 1981, I called an old friend who was still in the party to demand an explanation. How could the party that I joined in 1967 largely on the basis of its antiwar activity sit on the sidelines, even if in the name of looming trade union struggles (that never materialized, I should add.)

In 1980 I ran into a guy named Ray Markey in a pizza parlor across from my building on the Upper East Side and asked him if he could explain the party’s abstention. I had no idea what he thought of the “turn” to industry but I always remembered Ray as a straight shooter. Ray was a colorful Irish-American with a temper worse than mine and a long-time leader of the librarian’s union in N.Y. I would eventually learn that he refused to work in a New Jersey auto plant that the party was colonizing, understanding that his leadership in the librarian’s union counted for a lot more, even if the party brass disagreed.

He told me that Peter Camejo had written something that would answer my questions. It was titled appropriately enough “Against Sectarianism“. He would send me a copy even though that broke party rules. Ray understood that he would be booted out before long himself and really didn’t care about the consequences.

“Against Sectarianism” hit me like a bolt of lightning. Peter used the same brilliant political analysis that I saw at work in Boston and applied to the party that he had belonged to for more than 20 years. It was powerfully argued and used the rapier like wit that defined him. Here is a passage that had hit home for me as an unreconstructed “petty bourgeois” element who had failed to make the turn to industry.

Barnes continued: “That is without doubt what is happening on the U.S. left as the blows against the working class come down, as the polarization deepens, and as the imperialist war pressure mounts. The difference between conditions and consciousness borne of being a worker and that produced by being immersed in a petty-bourgeois milieu is widening. And the ranks of the North American marielitos- with Susan Sontag and her ilk leading the scramble for the boats-are growing.”

At an earlier date, Barnes used the example of Jerry Rubin as an example of the marielito phenomena. Rubin, a colorful protester during the anti-Vietnam war period who was associated with the “Yippies,” took a job on Wall Street and argued in defense of capitalism. The New York Times made a great deal of Rubin’s new job and gave him plenty of space to explain his views. The New York Times was overjoyed to find at least one figure from the radicalization of the ’60s who would speak in favor of capitalism. The Times’ campaign around Rubin fooled only a few people, probably because the Times did not follow up with other examples or any comments supporting or endorsing Rubin’s outlook by other well-known leaders of the ’60s.

The radicals of the ’60s have not, as a whole, turned to the right. Caught in the beginnings of a class polarization, the generation of the ’60s has gone in various directions. Some, under the pressures of bourgeois society and without any clear orientation, have abandoned political activity or become conservatized. Others have not, and their views cover the spectrum of positions existing at this stage of the radicalization in North American society.

Sensing that Peter had developed such a critique of the party, he was prevented from assuming his duties after a year long stay at his father’s ranch in Venezuela which he understood to be a leave of absence and nothing else. He went to Venezuela to read Lenin and try to figure out how the SWP had developed a caricature of what the Bolsheviks were trying to do. Peter thought that the Bolsheviks were nothing like the SWP. For one thing, they had expelled only one person in their entire history unlike the purge-happy Trotskyist movement.

When he got back to N.Y. to begin work with the party again, they told him to get lost. They actually had a beefy ex-football player from the University of Minnesota block Peter from entering a national committee meeting.

I called Peter immediately after reading the article and asked him what he had planned next since I wanted to be a part of it. It turned out that he was starting something called the North Star Network and I began to organize meetings at my house for people who were interested. More importantly, he advised me to join CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) since that was where the action was. Peter had a keen sense of what Karl Marx once wrote to Bracke: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

Eventually my involvement with Central America led me to a trip to Nicaragua in 1986 and participation in Tecnica, a radical version of the Peace Corps that played a critical role in Nicaragua and Southern Africa in the late 80s and early 90s.

Whenever I made it out to Berkeley to consult with Tecnica board members, I always would hook up with Peter and talk about where the movement was going. Those conversations were as precious to me as any that I have had in my lifetime and some can be found in my own memoir.

In a very real sense, everything that I am politically today was shaped directly by my apprenticeship/collaboration with Peter in the SWP and afterwards. I understand that Peter died with only half of the final chapter of his memoir unwritten. Thank god for that since I am quite sure that it will succeed both as politics to live by as well as great entertainment. Peter was a great person to be around when he was alive and his book will keep our memories of him alive as long as we live as well.

14 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this memoir Louis, especially about your squash sessions and his sense of humor. Peter recruited me to the YSA in May 1970, so we knew each other personally. When I traveled with him on his Senate campaign in 1970 I was struck by a contrast between his personal distance, which I attributed to his deep political seriousness, and the warmth and passion of his presentations to crowds on the campuses. My most vivid memory is when challenged from the crowd by a very angry Vietnam Vet– “Are you telling me that my buddies died for nothing?”– Peter immediately shifted his tone, stepped towards the guy and said very calmly and with kindness, “There are truths that are very hard to accept, brother. If we can act to stop the war that took their lives, then they will have died for something very important.” The guy choked up. I was floored by his ability to move effortlessly from the realm of abstraction to that of the concrete, at the most personal and intense human level. He was nonpareil. We have to learn from Peter. Bob M

    Comment by bob montgomery — September 14, 2008 @ 12:01 am

  2. Thanks for this insightful and personal memoir you have given us Louis. Many have similar memories of Peter and how he touched our lives. The sadness I feel at the loss of Peter makes writing these few lines hard to do. On a very personal level; I respect and admire the efforts of many people, but very few attain level of respect I hold for Peter Camejo.

    Comment by George McKinlay — September 14, 2008 @ 1:29 am

  3. Thanks, Louis. I look forward to your obituary. The key issue of Camejo’s life was his sense of the mass movement and where it was going. As the story has been told to me, he was on top of the cop car that imprisoned Jack Weinberg in the famous UCB FSM.

    I never heard a more gifted speaker. In his own way, he belongs in the constellation that includes Marlin Luther King, Jr. The most memorable speech of my political life was Peter speaking at a rally in Detroit in 1976, when he was running for President, in which he used the “water coming to a boil” metaphor to explain how revolutionary consciousness can suddenly appear to take over the working class. He gave the further example of the discussion in the Boston chapter of the SWP about what size of Militant bundle to order in the wake of the Kent State murders. The branch, which ussualy sold somewhere in the low three figures, ordered a bundle of 5000.

    He was a wonderfully inspiring person and I will miss him and his vision.

    David McDonald

    Comment by David McDonald — September 14, 2008 @ 4:10 am

  4. When he ran for vice president for the SWP, it was the most vigorous campaign they ever had.

    RIP

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 14, 2008 @ 5:09 am

  5. With Peter Camejo’s death, one more outstanding mentor is gone.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — September 14, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  6. This is really terrible. What a great thinker and organizer. And I’ve never seen a better speaker.

    Comment by jonah — September 14, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  7. I once helped organize a meeting where Camejo spoke, back in 2004 when he was Nader’s running mate. The two things I most remember about that event was the presence and disturbance caused by people called ‘Larouchites’ – never have I seen a more fanatical bunch – and the sheer persuasive power of Camejo.

    I was honestly a bit irritated with him as he showed up almost an hour late, but that was all forgotten by the end of his remarks, which won thunderous applause.

    He had an excellent style that is beyond the grasp of most of today’s left academics, who like to hear nothing more than the sound of their own big words. His logic was impeccable.

    Our misfortune is that too little of the human mind is swayed by logic and reason than presumed by Enlightment thinkers.

    Comment by M. Junaid Levesque-Alam — September 14, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

  8. I saw Camejo speak on a number of occasions. I was always impressed by him. I think that under different conditions, he could have had a very strong influence on events. Unfortunately, he had to maneuver through a Left that was either tailing the Democrats or mired in sectarianism.

    Comment by Austin — September 15, 2008 @ 6:23 am

  9. Thanks for this Louis. The news was relayed to comrades meeting at the Fourth International’s school in Amsterdam this weekend, and we shared some memories and stories of Peter’s life. We’ve mentioned your note, and a few others, in ‘International Viewpoint’, at http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1517 .

    Comment by Chris Brooks — September 15, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  10. I checked Socialistworker.org and found this posted about Camejo’s death. My jaw dropped and I headed straight over to this page. Thank you for the memoriam. I’ve only had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few times, but those speeches will be with me for the rest of my life. He was a huge asset to the American left and unfortuantely the younger generation will not be able to learn directly from him anymore.

    I hope his memoir is published soon.

    Comment by Binh — September 15, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

  11. As a youngster in the Australian Socialist Workers Party in the 1980s, Peter made a great impression on me. In recent years it was less his humor or his charisma that i recalled, but i always thought of him when things got tough in the revolutionary movement – i thought of him as someone who kept looking for a road forward, whatever the obstacles. Thanks for this article. Hasta la victoria siempre Pedro!

    Comment by Jorge Jorquera — September 15, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

  12. As an unrepentant Mandelite, I am no fan of the SWP’s abandonment of class struggle politics and the transitional methodology that took place in the 60s and 70s when Camejo was in the leadership along with Barnes and Sheppard. However small their contribution, the SWP helped to ensure the far left’s descent into identity politics and single-issueism alongside of the lesser-evilism that the CP pioneered and the ex-Maoists breathed new life into.

    However, I will remember him, above all else, as one the most eloquent exponents of independent working class politics in this country, especially now, when we are so desperately in need of them.

    As a CUNY student in 1976, I saw Camjeo wipe the floor with Michael Harrington, when the latter was urging a vote for the same Democratic party that was carrying out a program of structural adjustment on NYC during the so-called “fiscal crisis” of the middle ’70s, including the ending of free-tuition and open admissions at CUNY. The text of this debate was reprinted in “The Lesser Evil,” a work that every ostensible leftist needs to read and re-read every election.

    During the 2004 elections, I heard him many times savage the mainstream liberal-left’s support for John Kerry, who like Obama today, faulted Bush for not employing enough troops in imperialism’s “war on terror.” And this was coming from people who claimed to be “anti-war” or in the case of another ex-Trotskyist, Tariq Ali, “anti-imperialist,” as well.

    At a time when the left is more mired then ever in “lesser evilism,” principled people like Peter Camejo will be missed more than ever.

    Comment by MN Roy — September 16, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

  13. Back in 1974 I was part of a Young Socialist Alliance literature team in Colorado-New Mexico-Wyoming. Some reading this will remember what these were like: We would travel from campus to campus in a particular region, selling Pathfinder literature and subscriptions to The Militant and trying to recruit people to the YSA. We had to support ourselves off of the proceeds!

    We were at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, a very conservative town. Camejo was due on a speaking tour. I think this was shortly before he was formally declared as the SWP candidate for President in 1976. For some reason the local YSAers had booked an auditorium that seated maybe 300 people. I had a sinking feeling that maybe 30 people would show up at the most and we’d all be left with egg on our faces.

    We had a literature table set up in the student Union that day and suddenly it dawned on us that everybody was talking about the “former student radical from Berkeley” who was due to speak that evening. All during the day Camejo was bouncing from class to class giving talks. When the main event rolled around that night not only was every seat taken but people were standing in the aisles. Peter of course gave a rousing speech on why the capitalist system needed to be replaced and the need for a revolutionary organization to lead the process.

    Even after midnight, having been plugging away all day, Camejo was holding forth with a group of students in a dorm room.

    The SWP and YSA had a few great motivational speakers (Dan Styron was another one) but Peter was by far the greatest. I think he was meant for another time and place, leading millions of the oppressed in struggle against the system, and the sixties and seventies, for all the great things that happened, were not that time.

    In the ensuing decades, for better or for worse, Peter never gave up hope that a more just society would someday arise. He’ll be sorely missed.

    Comment by David Altman — September 16, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

  14. Louis

    A worthy tribute to your friend and comrade.

    Comment by Mick Hall — September 19, 2008 @ 9:53 pm


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